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Rubber sap may fail to bond PM Modi with Indian Christians

Narendra Modi’s visit to the southern state of Kerala may let in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh fox in the church chicken coop
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with heads of Christian denominations in the southern state of Kerala, in Kochi on April 24

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with heads of Christian denominations in the southern state of Kerala, in Kochi on April 24. (Photo: Twitter)

Published: April 26, 2023 12:08 PM GMT
Updated: April 27, 2023 03:36 AM GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi possibly saved a few thousand rupees in aviation fuel for his high-security airplane, mixing his election campaign trip to Kerala with an official visit to launch a ferry and a metro train. But his meeting in his hotel with a bunch of heads of the different Christian denominations in the southern state may not bring him the political dividend his Malayalam-speaking assistants have promised him.

Mercifully for the church delegation, the Latin Catholic Archbishop Joseph Kalathiparambil carried with him a written memorandum listing, among other issues, the concerns of the larger Indian Church outside the tiny but populous state of Kerala. Before the meeting, the media had widely reported that the bishops, largely representing the central Kerala faithful, were especially going to voice the concerns of the economically elite plantation owners and big traders.

These include the demand for the federal government’s base support prices for natural rubber, which often faces international market fluctuations resulting in big losses to plantations and rubber traders in Kerala and Chennai.

The other demand which has hit the headlines is for marking an insulator zone between the agricultural communities, many of them Christian, in the high ranges along the borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Human encroachments have brought them into conflict with elephants and tigers for whom this is the connecting trail with the forests of the Deccan and central India, and all the way through to Assam in the northeast.

A section of the bishops is also keen on central help for health institutions, including hospitals and medical colleges, which now face an economic crisis.

But violent persecution in most northern and central states tops the concerns for the average Indian Christian, and for the community’s supporters in civil society.

Social issues such as the denial of constitutional rights to Dalit Christians, the stoppage of scholarships to students from minority communities, and the concerns of the fishermen and boatmen along India’s vast coastline, also loom large on the national conscience.

Many non-BJP state governments, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-ruled Tamil Nadu are among those who have extended open support to Dalit Christians, fishermen, and students of minority religions whose scholarships have been stopped. The Modi administration stopped the monetary scholarship support aimed to assist in the educational growth of religious minorities in secular India.

PM Modi has given perfunctory responses to these demands. He cannot tell the bishops that the schemes were scrapped at his behest to keep his Hindu vote bank happy and that his party and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are entirely opposed to any benefits for Christian Dalits and tribals.

His statement that his government is opposed to violence against any religious community is openly defied by his followers in many states with repeated attacks on Muslims, and on Christian pastors, churches, and homes. In states such as Chhattisgarh, tribal Christians are being forced out of their homes if they do not convert to Hinduism. Thousands are now refugees.

Modi has also said development will come to Kerala if the BJP were to come to power. This seems to have the support of several bishops. One of them had earlier said Christians will vote for the BJP if Modi were to increase the prices of raw rubber.

Another, now the president of the National Council of Churches in India, praised the RSS because of its discipline. But the prime minister has essentially been vacuous on all serious issues including the one of providing jobs for the highly educated youth in the state.

There are concerns that while the prime minister was accompanied by two Kerala-based BJP-RSS officials, the Church delegation consisted of a narrow denominational profile. The bishops did not take along with them any lay experts, women, or even youth representatives. With denominational divisions sharp as they are in Kerala, there was little surprise that there were no non-Oriental, non-Catholic churches, including the evangelical and Pentecostal groups.

The absence of any lay representation or experts is difficult to explain. The prime minister can discuss religion, ethics, theology, and philosophy with bishops and shankaracharyas (Hindu seers), not commodities exchange or politics. For that, he must discuss with political leaders and intellectuals. In Punjab, he meets leaders of Akali Dal, the Sikh-centric political party, not the Jathedar (religious leader) of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism.

The eight Kerala Bishops who met Modi in a hotel in Kochi are from the St. Thomas Christians, as they are called in common parlance outside Kerala. These are no doubt all ancient rites, rooted in St. Thomas and Syrian traditions, but do not represent the vast number of Christians outside Kerala, including the tens of millions of converts in the decades since independence.

The delegation consisted of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church head Cardinal George Alencherry,  Syro-Malankara Catholic Church head Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Syrian Orthodox Church head Baselios Marthoma Mathews III, Metropolitan Trustee of the Jacobite Church Joseph Mor Gregorios, Latin Catholic Church Archbishop Joseph Kalathiparambil of Veraploy, Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt of Knanaya Catholic Kottayam diocese,  Archbishop of the Knanaya Jacobite Archdiocese Kuriakose Mar Severios, and Metropolitan of the Chaldean Syrian Church Mar Awgin Kuriakose.

PM Modi was assisted by Dr. K. S. Radhakrishnan and A.N. Radhakrishnan, one a general secretary of the BJP and the other a nominee of the RSS.

"We shared the anxieties we have regarding our mission work in north India, which is being hindered by religious fundamentalists,” Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar church told the media after the meeting.

The Catholic bishops have been pushed to the back foot by charges of corruption and other acts of malfeasance. But infernal conflicts such as the rebel priests in Ernakulam also seem to be pushing the bishops to seek refuge in the BJP camp.

For Modi, politically, the visit may eventually not be worth the trouble other than letting in the RSS fox in the church chicken coop.

Both the Congress and the Marxist alliances are set on a daring political course. As one of the top leaders said, “The only way to keep the doors closed on the RSS-BJP is for us to fight every single seat with a life or death intensity. That alone will ensure that no voter escapes to the BJP, especially in one or two parliamentary constituencies where the RSS has been working for a long time.

This doctrine is being tried out in Bengal where the Congress and Marxists will pit themselves against the Trinamool Congress, leaving as little space as possible for the BJP. And strange as it may seem, this will be a part of the electoral understanding the Congress and other state-based parties are working out for the 2024 General elections where they will try to unseat Modi’s government.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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3 Comments on this Story
Monetary aid (scholarship) under Minority Scholarship for students from six notified Minority Communities (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and Parsees) has been scrapped for classes I to VIII in Pre-Matric Scholarship. Scholarship for classes IX and X are still available. Also scholarships for Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) for PhD scholars has been discontinued from the 2022-23 academic session as according to the Union Government it “overlaps with various other fellowship schemes for higher education being implemented by the government and minority students are already covered under such schemes”.
In the photo, who are the prelates sitting behind the curtain?
Very informative and analytical piece. Thanks for the comment especially that united leadership of all churches and all segments of the Church need be engaged for a political resolution to the divisive politics of the time.
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